Father Desmond Rossi comforts Vince Pagano Sr., as he and his wife, Christina, visit their son, Vince, Jr's grave. The couple had been waiting 17 years to meet Father Rossi, who received their son's kidney. (Cindy Schultz photo)
Father Desmond Rossi comforts Vince Pagano Sr., as he and his wife, Christina, visit their son, Vince, Jr's grave. The couple had been waiting 17 years to meet Father Rossi, who received their son's kidney. (Cindy Schultz photo)
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It was a Sunday much like any other in the life of Father Desmond Rossi. Or at least that’s what he thought.

On this early fall morning in upstate New York as the leaves were just starting to turn color and pinwheel to the crowd, Father Rossi was preparing to celebrate three Masses. Like he had many other days, Father Rossi, who lives at St. Gabriel’s rectory in Rotterdam, walked the short distance down Hamburg Street and into St. Adalbert’s Cemetery, praying and thinking about the Gospel readings for Oct. 24.

He had his head down deep in contemplation and eventually found himself off the paved walkway that winds through the property and in the back right of the cemetery that is filled with Polish names. Now walking in the mud, he hadn’t noticed any of the hundreds of stones when he finally looked up and saw the name “Pagano.” The stone has a heart with a cross in the upper left corner and three places for names. But there is only one name carved in the middle: Vincent Jr., Son, 1979-2004.

“The chance of me coming across it is mind-blowing,” Father Rossi said. “It completely caught me off guard. It was incredible how it broke right into my day and the reality of my day.”

Seeing that name in the cemetery set off an amazing providential journey, which was helped out by social media, and was 17 years in the making. Those nearly two decades were filled with tragedy, grief and loss, many tears, donation and guilt, and finally an emotional meeting that three people thought would never happen.

* * *

Father Rossi, who is parochial vicar at St. Madeleine Sophie in Guilderland and St. Gabriel’s in Rotterdam, and sacramental minister at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Rotterdam and St. Margaret of Cortona in Rotterdam Junction, was born with one kidney but he never knew it.

“I found out when I was a sophomore in college and the problem was, at that time, the passageway to the kidney had a blockage,” said Father Rossi, who grew up in New Jersey and came to the Albany Diocese in 1989. “It impaired the function of the one kidney I had. So I lived with about 25 percent kidney function for about 25 years. And then it slowly had given out.”

So Father Rossi began the wait for a donor kidney, which included time on dialysis.

“Actually I was very lucky,” he said. “I waited about two-and-a-half years and of that time, I was on dialysis for only a year. Today, you are probably looking at four or five, even more years waiting. That wait is difficult, there is no way around that. Dialysis is not an easy thing to undergo as well. … It wasn’t like I was near death’s door, but the difficulty with waiting and waiting and being on dialysis longer and longer is that it can affect your health, so that timing of it is pretty important.”

According to organdonor.gov, there are 106,832 men, women and children on the national transplant list, with 17 people dying every day while awaiting a donor organ. Over 80 percent of people on the list are awaiting a kidney transplant, which is why the need is so critical. Organ donation is something that has been lauded by the Vatican for years with Pope Francis calling it a “testimony of love for our neighbor.” Father Rossi, now 60, added it is a part of the Church’s culture of life.

“There is a place right on your license where you can check off to be able to make that commitment and raise that awareness for others,” he said. “In terms of the teaching of the Church, the Church is fully supportive of organ donation and transplant, really as a part of the pro-life understanding of the Church. It’s important for Catholics to know that the Church is fully supportive of this process.”

While he was on a leave of absence in 2004, Father’s Rossi’s time to receive a new kidney had come.

“I had seen on the news that there was a young man, his name was Vince Pagano, and there was an accident in Albany,” Father Rossi said. “I knew at that point that I was pretty close to the top of the list. So it really was a matter of was he going to be a match. And the next morning I got the phone call that there was a match. I did not know if he was the donor or not, but I surmised that he was.”

* * *

July 5, 2004 is a day that forever altered the lives of Vince Pagano, Sr., and his wife, Christina. After a joyous Fourth of July celebration, their world came crashing down.

“I heard him leave that night and I thought to myself why is he leaving at this hour?” Vince Sr. said of oldest son, Vince Jr. “And it was a few hours later that we had to face the reality that God or whoever was presenting to us.”

Vince Jr., 24, was riding an ATV in Albany, without a helmet, when he was critically injured in a traffic accident.

“It was a very chaotic night,” Christina said. “We got that knock on the door at 1 o’clock in the morning from a friend of our son’s that had been trying to reach out to him and the police had answered the phone and said, ‘If you know who his parents are, contact them.’ That’s how we were notified.”

Soon they were at Albany Medical Center Hospital, trying to come to grips with a devastating reality that no parent should have to deal with and that seemed unthinkable just hours earlier.

“Once they determined he was brain dead, they brought in a panel  from Organ Donation and Transplant that presented us with the opportunity, if you will, for our son’s legacy to go on,” said Vince Sr., who worked for the Schenectady City School District and was also the high school football coach. “Whether you understand that when your son is laying there dead, you can’t even comprehend that because he is (technically) still alive. He is on respiration … you ultimately have to make the decision to end his life. So for me that was and is a struggle.”

As the Paganos were processing their immense loss, the very next day, July 6, Father Rossi was receiving Vince Jr.’s kidney at the hospital. 

“I got the call the next morning. So I made the connection,” Father Rossi said. “I asked one of the nurses, ‘Is this connected to last night?’ And she nodded her head.”

* * *

After Vince’s funeral, and as the days turned into months, Christina started writing letters to the Center for Donation and Transplant (CDT) to tell the donor recipients, including Father Rossi, about her son. The communication had to be started within the first year, Christina said, according to a pamphlet she had received from the center; Father Rossi, however, was told no contact could happen in the first year. In 2004, unlike today, “organ procurement organizations (OPOs) didn’t have designated specialists to handle donor/recipient outreach,” said Laura Fissette, Sr. Hospital & Community Services specialist with the Center for Donation and Transplant of New York-Vermont, in an email. So donor families and recipients were more or less on their own.

“I feel like we were the pioneers of this whole organ donation. When we first started, the first service that we attended was in Troy and there were maybe six families there,” Christina said. “And it was just starting and it just grew and grew and grew.”

Now donor families and recipients, with the help of specialists, can send letters to the CDT at any time, Fissette said.

“There is no time limit as to when they can send a letter,” Fissette added in the email. “Once CDT receives the letter we send it on to the desired person. The letter can contain the author’s personal information such as name, phone number, email address, etc. Should the person who received the letter wish to respond to the letter, it is up to them to reach out to the author using the personal information provided in the letter.”

In Christina’s letters, she wanted the donor recipients to learn a little bit about Vince Jr.

“I wrote letters shortly after Vinnie had passed, just to let them know about our son; who he was, what he looked like,” Christina said. “I sent pictures, told them about his brother (Sam), told them about our family. I got a letter back from Father, I got a letter back from a gentleman named Richard, who was his other kidney recipient, and I got a letter back from a couple, John and Karen. That was it. We didn’t hear from the rest of the families.

“After that correspondence, I wrote again, but what do you write to people? It was very, very difficult to try to get people to write you back. I know how difficult it was for me to write that letter and I know how difficult it was for them to write that letter.”

They did find out from the center that John, who had received Vince’s Jr.’s intestines and stomach, had died.

“(Karen) didn’t want us to feel bad that he had passed because he was able to see his seven grandchildren and without that transplant he would not have met his grandchildren,” Christina said.

As the years passed, even the memorial services, no matter how beautifully planned for their son and others, became difficult to attend.

“Every memorial service got harder and harder,” Christina said, “because it was donors talking about meeting their recipients, and we never had that. It became more discouraging that it’s never going to happen.”

An emotional Vince Sr., dabbing his eyes with a tissue, added: “When you are going to the memorials and accepting the grief as the years go on, you want the grief to be over. You want some kind of joyous end. … We think there needs to be more awareness on the side of the recipient. People do want to hear from you, and if they don’t, they will be the first to let you know.”

As much as some organ donor families want to hear from the recipients, being able to continue living through someone’s tragic death is something people struggle with emotionally. Father Rossi was no different.

“Because it’s someone’s tragedy that you are benefitting from, it really is a soulful process,” he said. “And particularly for who I am and the work that I do, it takes a while to reconcile ... After what had happened, (Christina and Vince Sr.) sent me their son’s picture and that was difficult for me.”

Although it was hard to process, Father Rossi, however, still wanted and wondered if he would ever meet the Paganos in person. Without the information that recipients have today, he would call phone numbers he thought were theirs, but turned out they were not.

“There isn’t this immediate connection … because of the emotionality of everything,” Father Rossi said. “And then ultimately, life went on. I didn’t hear from them, they didn’t hear from me. … We pretty much lost contact.”

* * *

That was until the day Father Rossi walked into St. Adalbert’s Cemetery and saw Vince Jr.’s stone. Even then, Father Rossi was unsure about what to do with this overwhelming discovery.

“I didn’t know what it meant. I knew there was a message in it. … Once that happened, I said, ‘Okay Lord, I get it. This is about meeting them.’ ”

That is when he posted the story on social media and things started to move fairly quickly. “I put it on Facebook, I mentioned it to a couple of people, then somehow, someway, it got back to the parents. A parishioner who knew someone who knew the family got a message that they wanted to meet me,” Father Rossi said.  So they initiated at that point through someone else. … It was an emotional day. I recognized God’s hand in this pretty clearly.”

A former co-worker of Christina’s is a parishioner at St. Made­leine Sophie and knows one of her good friends. That friend then told Christina about Father Rossi and his social-media post. “There was no doubt in our minds that we wanted to meet him.” she said

After Christina did a lot of crying and some detective work on Father Rossi — “stalking” him on Facebook and watching a livestream Mass from St. Madeleine Sophie — the meeting was set. There were more tears, but also joy and a level of closure that this day finally happened. The meeting centered around Vinnie, the free spirit who believed in God, but didn’t go to church much.

“My biggest fear is always that I am going to forget his smile,” Christina said. “You are going to forget his bear hugs and with Father (Rossi during the meeting) that all came crashing back. … I think it shocked a lot of people when we say Vinnie’s kidney is in a priest.”

“I have been waiting for this,” Vince Sr., added. “Our legacy is living through Father and, ironically, my son was a rebel and to see him on the altar now is wonderful. I think it is even shocking him … nothing has fallen over in the house yet.”

Since Vince Jr. was not an organ donor by choice, making the decision to donate his kidneys, along with everything else, is something that Vince Sr., struggled with even up until the day he met Father Rossi.

“I believe seeing Desmond sit here, that it is absolutely the right thing to do. I have struggled with it, he didn’t have on his license — ‘I want to be an organ donor,’ ” said Vince Sr., whose other son became an organ donor after his brother’s death. “I have struggled with having to make that decision for him. Now I know it was the right decision. There’s closure.”

Part of that closure included a walk from the rectory at St. Gabriel’s to the cemetery the next day following the same route that Father Rossi had taken when he first saw Vince Jr.’s stone. Christina has visited the grave often, which is nearly impossible to find among the rows and rows of stones if you don’t know where you are going. A reluctant Vince Sr., couldn’t find the stone and when he finally saw the name “Pagano” became emotional saying, ‘I miss him so much,’ as Father Rossi put his arm around him in comfort.

“For me, I really believe that Vinnie is the one that made this happen,” Father Rossi said. “Some­one said to me, it was as if he was calling me there because just the way that it happened … to be drawn there and for me to put it on Facebook and so on ... I really do believe that he did this. The term that keeps going through my mind are the verses, ‘God has visited his people.’ ”

And with this visit between three people that was nearly two decades in the making, finally comes a bit of joy.

“The next day is the same as the last day, but now it’s a little more joyful even through the tears,” Vince Sr. said. “I am not much of a churchgoer, but I am a man of God. … going to church just brought that day back. But now I told Father, ‘You may see me in the back row once in a while.’ ”

To register to be a donor, please visit www.cdtnyvt.org